BEIJING – North Korea’s economic plight in the wake of the new coronavirus pandemic and natural disasters may give Japan’s next prime minister a chance to meet with the nuclear-armed country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, foreign affairs experts say.
As the global virus outbreak has stifled North Korea’s trade with its major economic ally of China and massive flooding triggered by powerful typhoons has devastated the agricultural sector, Kim could extend an olive branch to Japan to receive aid to rebuild the stagnant economy.
Outgoing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has failed to resolve the issue of North Korea’s abduction of Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 1980s, but his likely successor, Yoshihide Suga, might push forward negotiations on it in a better way than his predecessor has done.
Fears, however, are lingering that if Suga readily accepts North Korea’s requests with the aim of settling the issue, Japan’s cooperation with the United States and South Korea in response to Pyongyang could become fragile, destabilizing the security environment in East Asia.
The United States and its Asian security allies, Japan and South Korea, have no diplomatic relations with the North. The Korean Peninsula has been divided as the 1950-1953 Korean War ended in a cease-fire. Washington, which fought alongside Seoul, technically remains in a state of war with Pyongyang.
Since its founding in 1948, North Korea has also kept up stern rhetoric on Japan to promote propaganda of the communists in the nation, while demanding Tokyo to pay post-World War II compensation. Japan colonized Korea from 1910 through the end of the war in 1945.
Suga, currently chief Cabinet secretary who was elected as new president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party on Monday and is all but certain to be appointed as next prime minister on Wednesday, has pledged to continue striving to rescue abductees in North Korea.
He has expressed eagerness to hold a meeting with Kim “without conditions” in hopes of making a breakthrough over the long-standing abduction issue, which is in line with the stance of Abe who has long mapped out diplomatic strategies with his right-hand man Suga.
“Suga wants to appear to be continuing Abe’s political efforts but also demonstrate his personal political and diplomatic skills to mark himself as a new, creative leader,” said Young-Key Kim-Renaud, a professor emeritus at the George Washington University in Washington.
Abe has taken a tough posture against North Korea since he became prime minister in December 2012 following his first one-year stint in the post between 2006 and 2007, saying tackling the abduction issue is his “life’s work.”
Japan’s longest-serving prime minister had once intensified a “maximum pressure campaign” on North Korea to gain concessions, but he has begun calling for a Tokyo-Pyongyang summit since U.S. President Donald Trump decided to meet with Kim in 2018.
Nevertheless, the abduction issue has shown no signs of changing track. For the past few years, Abe has become the only leader who has not held dialogue with Kim among members of the long-suspended six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program — involving the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States.
Kaoru Hasuike, who was abducted by North Korea and returned to Japan in 2002, has urged the next government to find out a solution to the abduction issue by implementing appeasement measures such as offering food support to Pyongyang.
A diplomatic source in Beijing said North Korea has been dissatisfied with Abe’s policy toward Pyongyang, as it believes he has only used the abduction issue for domestic politics without trying to pave the way for improvement in bilateral ties.
“North Korea apparently hopes Japan will alter its hardline attitude toward Pyongyang after the replacement of the prime minister,” the source said.
Lim Tai Wei, senior research fellow at the East Asian Institute of the National University of Singapore, said, “Given that Mr. Suga represents a moderate image of mainstream Japanese politics, it is a potential window of opportunity for Mr. Kim to reach out to Japan.”
He added now may be a good time for Japan to take a conciliatory gesture toward Kim at a time when North Korea’s economy has been hit hard by the aftermath of the pandemic and natural disasters as well as stalled talks with the United States over sanctions relief.
Troy Stangarone, a senior director at the Korea Economic Institute in Washington, echoed the view, saying that if Pyongyang indicates a willingness to discuss the abduction issue, Suga is expected to “take steps” to resolve it.
“Under the current U.N. sanctions, Japan would be able to provide humanitarian aid and if genuine progress were made it could help open an additional window for addressing the nuclear issue through improved relations between Japan and North Korea,” he added.
Stangarone, meanwhile, said, “If Tokyo moves ahead with normalizing relations (with Pyongyang) in the absence of coordination with Washington and Seoul, it could raise tensions with both.”
Kim-Renaud, a specialist of Korean affairs, also said, “For the eventual goal of common security and prosperity of the region, (Suga) would be wise to explore a diplomatic channel in improving relations with all his neighbors.”
After five abductees were brought back to Japan in 2002, Tokyo has been seeking the return of 12 others whom it has officially recognized as having been abducted by North Korean agents. It also suspects North Korea’s engagement in other Japanese citizens’ disappearances.
Pyongyang has claimed that the abduction issue has been “already resolved,” saying eight of them, including the iconic abductee Megumi Yokota, have died and the other four never entered the country.
In May 2014, Japan and North Korea reached an accord in Stockholm on principles for negotiations toward the settlement of the abduction issue. Japan relaxed its sanctions on Pyongyang, which in turn promised a full-scale investigation into it.
But North Korea repeatedly postponed reporting the survey results. The nation then disbanded its investigation team and suspended the probe after Japan imposed further sanctions in February 2016 in reaction to Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile tests.
Suga has doubled as minister in charge of the abduction issue since 2018.